This month marks the 10th anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI’s historic visit to the United Kingdom.
Over four days from September 16 to 19, the world watched as a British public they had been told were impossibly sceptical of Benedict’s visit reacted first warmly, and then with growing enthusiasm, as the retiring German academic bishop’s unassuming and genial demeanour won the hearts of people up and down the island, of every age and sex and walk of life.
Benedict may not have won their minds, but he certainly – in the words of then-prime minister David Cameron – did make Britain “sit up and think”. In his leave-taking remarks at Heathrow airport, Cameron echoed Benedict’s own words of two days earlier, at Westminster Hall: “Religion,” said Pope Benedict, “is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation.”
The visit, and more closely, the Westminster speech – universally recognised as among the most significant of Benedict’s eight-year reign – was the high-water mark of British public Catholicism in the first quarter of the 21st century.
Part of his success was his recognition – neither cajoling, nor pining, nor pandering – of the contribution of the island’s people to Western civilisation.
“This country’s Parliamentary tradition,” Benedict said, “owes much to the national instinct for moderation, to the desire to achieve a genuine balance between the legitimate claims of government and the rights of those subject to it.”
Benedict praised the ability of the nation’s political institutions “to evolve with a remarkable degree of stability” and emerge as “a pluralist democracy which places great value on freedom of speech, freedom of political affiliation and respect for the rule of law, with a strong sense of the individual’s rights and duties, and of the equality of all citizens before the law.”
Benedict noted the substantial compatibility of Catholic social doctrine with the British genius for governance, especially with respect to the protection of every human person’s unique dignity, created in the image and likeness of God – and in Catholic social doctrine’s insistence on the duty of civil authority to foster the common good.
The truly brilliant thing – the secret to his success – was that he did not harp on it. He said it, and let it sit there for a minute, and then he set about his work of articulating a sweeping – and soaringly erudite – vision of the development of political theory that was startlingly ambitious: truly comprehensive in scope.
Benedict XVI got people to sit up and think because he spoke as one who actually believes man is capable of self-government, and so also in the possibility of ordered liberty in political society.
There, in Westminster Hall, was a man intimately acquainted with the dangers of ideology and the balance of the human soul – precarious at best this side of celestial Jerusalem – but would not let himself be cowed or discouraged by either.
Truly remarkable as the words he spoke were that day, the bedrock lesson he offered was in the words he did not say, but called everyone there and everyone watching to attend: that we must make a go of it, together, come what may.
There will be mistakes and missteps. There will be contention. There will be failures.
Ten years out, the headline issues under discussion are not all the same as those, which were then before the British public or other societies. The basic question, however, remains: can we muster the moral imagination necessary to outface the challenges before us, and preserve the best angels of our common patrimony?
The jury is still out.
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